The Current

Watching the Climate Change, Under the Sea

Warming, polluted waters and increasingly acidic ocean chemistry are landing a one-two punch on marine ecosystems and reef colonies. A new database brings dying corals to the surface.

Stefan Andrews films bleached fire coral in the shallows in Bermuda.     Photo: Courtesy of Richard Vevers, Catl

Last week, the United Nation's Intergovernmental Program on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its latest update. While it contained no ground-breaking findings, it did confirm that climatologists are more than 95 percent certain that the changes we're seeing in climate are caused by us—namely through the emissions of greenhouse gasses. The report also noted that 30 percent of anthropogenic (that is, human-generated) carbon dioxide has been absorbed into our oceans.

Ocean acidification may well be as big an issue as any of the repercussions from climate change. Unlike some of the more nuanced terrestrial impacts, acidification is showing its ugly head in a number of ways that we can readily see. Catlin Group, a global property/casualty insurer, has funded a comprehensive scientific survey to document the health of oceans, using cameras that take viewers on virtual dives. 

The project, called the Catlin Seaview Survey, has so far collected more than 100,000 360-degree panoramic images of the Great Barrier Reef. All of this material—much  of which is incredibly vivid and riveting—is being made available not just to scientists but also to the public through a huge online database called the Catlin Global Reef Record www.globalreefrecord.org.

The goal of the survey and the online database is to make data easily accessable and "enable scientists around the world to collaborate on understanding changes to coral reefs and related marine environments as a result of over-exploitation, pollution and climate change," according to Catlin Group.

Acidic waters, pollution, and overfishing are killing coral reefs, which take up just .1 percent of the ocean floor, yet provide habitat for a quarter of the ocean's species. There might be as many as 9 million species that live in and around coral reefs, said Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, the director of the University of Auckland's Global Change Institute and chief scientist for the Catlin Seaview Survey, during the project launch. 

Through tourism and fishing, reefs provide livelihood to 500 million people—but between one third and one half of corals around the world have been lost in the last 50 years.

The database is not meant to be some kind of oceanic ruin porn. The message behind the project is that it's not too late to improve ocean health, but that it will require collaboration, not just across scientific organizations, but also across governments and business sectors.

"The public at large is not tuned in and therefore is not as turned on as some of the rest of us" when it comes to the oceans, said oceanographer Sylvia Earle during the launch. 

Thus far, the project has confirmed findings from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Coral Reef Watch Satellite Bleaching Alert, which indicated some coral bleaching 40 to 60 feet below the surface. 

"The area is under a Level 1 alert, which indicates that high water temperatures have been sustained for more than four weeks, causing algae growing inside the corals to become toxic," according to a release from the Catlin Survey. "Some areas close by are in Level 2 alert, which means mortality is likely."

Hoegh-Guldberg said the survey might provide a means to respond more rapidly to "stress events such as mass coral bleaching and mortality," compared to protocols currently used.

"The good news is that half the coral reefs are still in pretty good shape, and the ingredients that go along with a healthy reef … they are not all gone. Yet," Earle added.

Another in-depth look at the state of our oceans—specifically ocean acidification and its impact on the shellfish industry—comes courtesy of The Seattle Times, which ran a deep package of text and video features last month called Sea Change. For that series, reporter Craig Welch traveled from Papua, New Guinea, to see how CO2 is harming reefs, to the Bering Sea, to see the impact acidification is having and will have on the shellfish fisheries.


Healthy fire coral, left, compared with bleached coral, right, in Bermuda. Photo: Courtesy of Richard Vevers, Catlin Seaview Survey

Ocean acidification is also the focus of a new X Prize, announced last month. This contest will award $1 million to the first team to create a cheap, accurate pH sensor that can be deployed to test ocean acidity at depths where it is not generally tracked.

The undersea world is at huge risk—we didn't even delve into the issue of plastic pollution here—but the scientific community, the media, and the technology sector are starting to shine spotlights on the seas.

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